Jim Winey: Maggies Man Page 2

Lander: You might have had it manufactured by 3M—the company was interested in it.

Winey: Two or three of the big wheels came out to our little old home in White Bear Lake, with our old broken-down furniture, to hear these things. One of the prototypes, after it had gotten along quite a ways, ended up going into their fancy anechoic chamber and being analyzed by their physicists. There was this one who was their speaker expert who said, "It can't work."

Lander: But once they determined how well it did work, they wanted it.

Winey: They wanted it, and I was willing to let them have it, but I would not let them have it without a royalty. I was adamant. I decided, if they would sign an agreement, I'd be the project manager and spend the rest of my life trying to get this thing going. It went all the way to the top, and finally the president of 3M said, "No, we can't do it. Every guy over in research we're paying to develop stuff for us is going to turn around and try to sell it to us." It was a precedent problem.

Lander: Given a previous experience with a tabletop game you had patented earlier on and had wanted to produce, you felt caught in a bind. You've explained that 3M had agreed you could produce your game but, because you happened to be an employee when you developed it—albeit on your own time—they retained the rights to make it and sell it themselves as well. How, with your speaker, did you get past that paradox?

Winey: I fortunately had somebody sympathetic to my cause: the executive vice president of R&D, a wonderful man. Walton was his name. He called me over to his office in the big skyscraper one day and said, "Well, the executive committee says we can't do this thing and give you a royalty, but we will give you a release." I brought up the one they had given me on this game, and he apologized for it. He already had a letter there correcting it. And he had one on the speaker, too, that was far more lenient. So I said, "Well, I have no alternative but to do it myself." And he said, "Godspeed," and patted me on the back. He was almost like a father to me.

Lander: So you left 3M in June 1969 with a product and investors to back it.

Winey: You know, the easiest part of this whole thing was raising money. The only problem was, I should have raised more than I did.

Lander: How much did you raise?

Winey: $50,000. I had to live on that, plus buy equipment, build a laboratory. I figured it had to last me for almost two years, and it did.

Lander: Had your four children all been born by then?

Winey: Yeah. Fortunately, my wife worked for our doctor in his office, so we pretty much got our medical things free.

Lander: When did you feel your product was about ready for market?

Winey: By early 1971, I had a single panel almost as wide as the KLH Nine mounted between spring-tension poles that ran from floor to ceiling, like the old lamps used.

Lander: You've said someone at the store that Bill Johnson had previously owned asked you to leave them there overnight, apparently because he wanted to play them for Bill.

Winey: I got a phone call right away from Bill, in the morning. He said, "Jim, I've just been over to the store and heard your speakers. I want to talk." So we got together. There was one flaw. This was a single, full-range speaker. There was no separate tweeter, and it was quite directive, and I knew it. I had some crossovers, and I was going to work on a smaller line source for the high frequencies. Bill picked up on that real quick, too, and he encouraged me to do it. Then I had to figure out what kind of package to put it in. Well, I had spotted this three-panel folding screen that you buy in furniture stores, and I had the idea of putting bass drivers in two of the panels and a narrow high-frequency unit in the other one, so I did that.

Lander: And that became the Tympani, which originally sold for $995/pair. Audio Research distributed the three-panel series for several years, but the Tympani was the only one Bill Johnson handled for you, wasn't it?

Winey: He knew that what I planned on doing was eventually coming out with the single-panel model through my own dealers. In 1973, I came out with the first MG II. I then started setting up my own dealer network.

Lander: Your patented ribbon tweeter was a major leap forward for Magnepan. How did that come about?

Winey: We had known for some time that the top end of our speaker was the weak link. Actually, Wendell [Diller, longtime Magnepan sales and marketing manager] and I had been out to Lyric [the New York City audio store], and we got to see this pair of Tympanis sitting there with this Sequerra tweeter. It made me get serious. I got to thinking on the airplane on the way back, and another light bulb went on. I sketched it out on the airplane and came back and was able to put one together. It was direct-driven—no transformers. It was a line source, it was dipole to go with the rest of our speakers, and it just fit like a glove to what we were doing. The first one went into the Tympani IV, which by that time, 1978, we were marketing ourselves.

Lander: The only Magnepan product that hasn't been a speaker was the Unitrac tonearm. Why a tonearm?

Winey: Because I'd come to feel it was the weak link in the whole system. I had an idea: a unipivot with no damping. One of the problems I've always had with tonearms was their damping. It's a catch-22 situation because, if you have a turntable that's on a surface that does some vibrating, damping probably helps. But it's a Band-Aid; you're better off without it if you don't have to use it. The dynamics are far better, and the tracing of that groove is more accurate.

Lander: How long did it take you to develop the Unitrac?

Winey: I started thinking about it in the late '70s, but it took five years to get into production—a real big job, let me tell you. We had local machine builders build parts, and we assembled them. One of the things I felt was a problem with most tonearms was inertia, which I got around by placing the pivot point approximately a quarter of an inch from the counterweight's center of gravity. It had a very simple means of adjusting anti-skate, and it had a vertical-tracking adjustment. The price was right; it was only $325. It went over very well. We sold almost 10,000 of them in four, five years. But by the time we got it into production, the CD was coming down the railroad track.

Lander: When it pulled into the station and you got to hear it, what did you think of the Compact Disc?

Winey: I've come to realize the big problem was hardware. The first CDs I had were horrible. A few years later, I pulled some of those out and couldn't believe how much better they sounded. I have a highly tweaked Wadia system on my MG 20.1s, and I'm telling you, the sound is incredible.

Lander: Do you, then, see a pressing need for SACD or some other format that takes us beyond the "Red Book" CD standard?

Winey: Hey, we're full steam ahead on SACD. I've found that even the "Red Book" layer on these hybrid discs is benefiting from Direct-Stream Digital.

Lander: Magnepan staged a multichannel demonstration at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show that seemed to put you in the surround-sound vanguard. For a while afterward, though, your efforts in that area seemed to slow down.

Winey: I think one of the things that maybe made us slow a little is that this added dimension was inevitably associated with a lowering of intrinsic quality. When you go to four channels, as they did with four-channel sound, then five, to make it anywhere near affordable it's got to be cheapened. That grated on some of us. We didn't like that. And I don't think the surround technology was ready. I think you could draw an analogy between what was happening and what we had back in the early days of stereo: Ping-Pong. There was too much of that going on. But Dolby Digital was a big step forward. It prompted us to work harder at developing speakers for the surround format.

Lander: A five-speaker set of your newest surround-sound models, four MGMC 1s and a center-channel MGCC 2, sells for $2400. Some people would argue that, because Magneplanars deliver so much sound quality per dollar, the need for more speakers puts you in an enviable position.

Winey: There's no doubt. The other thing we have going for us is that you can fold our speakers back against the wall. Decorators hate to deal with speakers; it's one of the biggest problems they have. And you can angle them easily to make adjustments for room effects—and to tailor them for a given individual's taste.

Lander: Magnepan is family-owned, and two other family members, both your sons, work there now. How do they fit into the company picture?

Winey: Mark is an electrical engineer. He's been here now about four years. He's 42. He worked for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for several years. Steven has been in and around Magnepan since he was in high school. He's 38, and he probably knows more about the technology than anyone other than myself. He knows manufacturing. He's run the service department.

Lander: So it sounds like succession is assured.

Winey: Oh, there's no doubt. They will do well.

Lander: You had an unfortunate accident in 1993. You fell backward on some stairs, injured your spine, and had to undergo complex surgery. Now you walk with the aid of braces or use a wheelchair. Has all that slowed you down much?

Winey: It did for a couple of years, but I'm fine. I still consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world—to spend my life and earn my livelihood doing something I love as much as I love doing this. A lot of the guys I worked with at 3M couldn't wait to take an early out at 55. I'm 68, and I still go to work most days.